Mon refugee serves as leader, example for Navy JROTC cadets
By BILL HAND | Sun Journal, New Bern, N.C. | Published: June 11, 2013
NEW BERN, N.C. — When he was a small boy, Tala Done was stumbling determinedly about in an orange robe, his head shaved, undergoing a Buddhist monk ceremony.
He staggered under the weight and circumference of a black alms bowl in the village of Hangan, Burma, while an adult Buddhist monk followed after him, making sure he didn’t fall over.
Today, Done is a rising New Bern High School senior who passed his junior year working as cadet corps commander of the Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps — top officer of the student-led program.
One imagines the little boy in Burma never saw that coming.
Back then, Done and his family were part of the Mon ethnic group living as an oppressed minority in Burma, which is also known as Myanmar.
Done’s grandparents raised him for the first five years of his life in the town of Chawing Chi while his parents sought higher-paying jobs in neighboring Thailand. It was during this time that he had his experience with the monastery.
“Life back then was very, very religious,” he said. “I didn’t know anyone that wasn’t a Buddhist. … If you were to see a monk walking down the street, everyone would go down on their knees.”
The nine-day ceremony was a rite of passage.
After the age of 6, Done began to spend more time with his parents in Thailand. The family eventually applied through that country for refugee status. After brief stops in Tokyo and Chicago, the family was sent for resettlement in New Bern in February 2005.
Ten years ago, the family was brought to New Bern through the Interfaith Refugee Ministry.
Just a month shy of 10 years old, Done found himself in a classroom of American children with whom he could not communicate. He and his brother, Sire Manuit Mon, received help in school through the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. They were pulled from class twice a week and tutored by Mary Barden and Betty Scott, both of Trent Woods.
Barden, who along with her husband, Graham, were at the airport to greet the family when they first arrived, remembers teaching Done and interacting with his family.
“They couldn’t speak a word of it,” she said of their English skills. “But they learned quick… we got to know them, took them crabbing. We took them to see Christmas lights, tried to make them feel a little more at home.”
She also helped set up scholarships for Done and his brother and sisters to attend Camp Seagull — “and that was a very big deal,” she said.
Done said he learned a lot of English outside of classroom situations. “I think most of the English that I picked up was from TV and from listening to interactions between people,” he said.
For a short time, the family stayed with another New Bern family before moving into a rented mobile home in Fox Chase Village.
“There was a lot of work that the house needed,” he said, but the family worked together to handle repairs. In 2007, they were able to move into their own home on Sparta Way.
His mother, Moen Jao, an expert seamstress, works at home or occasionally with Bo’s Alteration and tends the children while his father, Lyi Krak Mon, works at BSH.
Done credits much of his success to his girlfriend, Kathryn Scott, whom he met through the district’s Academically and Intellectually Gifted program.
“She’s incredibly smart,” he said of her. She has encouraged him in the long hours he puts into the JROTC program, “And she obviously helps me to not hang out with the wrong people.”
Although Scott’s family is of a Christian tradition, she says her parents have been “really supportive” of their relationship.
“They treat him as their own son,” she said.
Done has been in JROTC since his freshman year when his older sister, Mi Shain Mon, a JROTC cadet, encouraged him to sign on. He was reluctant at first, in part because he didn’t want to cut off his long hair — hair that his girlfriend suggested “made all the girls swoon.”
His sister introduced him to one of the program’s instructors, retired Marine Master Sgt. Sam Dotson, who has been teaching in New Bern’s JROTC since 1996.
Dotson “pulled my hair back and said, ‘If you join, you’ll look like a steely-eyed killer!,’” Done recalled.
But beyond the frivolity of hair, Done said, “I joined because of the leadership exposures that you get, as well as the self-discipline.”
It was a five-day leadership academy at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., that really awoke Done’s passion for JROTC and the Marines, which he intends to pursue as a career.
“That helped me break out of my shell a little bit,” he remembered. “And that’s where I came back with this drive because I had a basis of what leadership was. “
Dotson, whom Done looks upon as a mentor, believes that the top cadet has embraced the highest ideals of the JROTC.
“He came back (from the leadership academy) with a lot of good ideas and ready to work hard,” he said.
It isn’t easy to be cadet corps commander. As a student-led organization, you oversee 185 cadets with 24 officers, seeing to training, community activities and other events while maintaining excellent academics.
Done and Scott are also heavily involved in other community groups and clubs.
“I really enjoy helping people out,” he said.
The fact that Done was chosen for cadet corps commander as a junior is almost unheard of, Dotson said. But he “outworked everyone else for the top position… He is exceptional, not only through us, but through the whole school.”
Dotson believes Done is the best cadet corps commander the program has had.
“The key thing that distinguishes him from all the others,” Dotson said, “is he is always teaching the cadets something. He wants to leave a legacy and he works hard to be an example.”
Done, who has just recently been sworn in as an American citizen, looks forward to serving his new country through the Marine Corps, and both Dotson and Scott expect him to go far. He’s got the drive and the dream, they say.
As Done said he learned at the academy: “It isn’t just screaming and yelling. It’s getting the job done. It’s inspiring your people to do so.”